The Perils of Public Ridicule
I give you a sad tale of two men — one of them young and fragile, the other one successful, widely known and perhaps equally fragile. Two men, strangers to each other but linked by a common fate: both found themselves exposed to public ridicule, and both reached the limit of their capacity to absorb it.
The younger one committed suicide by jumping off a bridge; the successful one committed career suicide by mouthing off about Jon Stewart and, well, a whole battery of pet peeves that thoughtful people don’t go mouthing off about, at least in public.
First, the youngster. As nearly the entire republic knows by now, first-year Rutgers student and aspiring violinist Tyler Clementi hurled himself off the George Washington Bridge after his roommate and another student allegedly webcast his close encounter with a young man for the entire world to see.
A few observations, for what they’re worth…
You can’t blame Clementi for feeling that he had no way out; he was too young to see that the webcast might be a fleeting thunderstorm in what could have been an otherwise sunny life. He probably saw nothing but thunderstorms ahead. That’s his tragedy.
For the life of me, I can’t understand how Clementi’s roommate expected to face him again after pulling off such a dastardly stunt. Would he have clapped Tyler on the back and shrugged off the streaming webcast with a lame “Sorry, dude”? Would he have said nothing and simply snickered at his roomie for the rest of the school year… made Tyler the object of scorn among their dormitory cohorts? His behavior baffles me.
The Internet has spawned a culture of public ridicule and casual cruelty that might have eased the way for Clementi’s downfall. Denizens of the ‘Net seem to relish those “epic fail” moments — videos and photos of poor schlemiels caught in all-too-human disasters that subject them to worldwide ridicule. Everyone laughs mercilessly, and nobody stops to consider that the victims are real people with real feelings and real families who share their pain.
Yes, we should be able to laugh at ourselves… no, we shouldn’t be forced to accept worldwide ridicule as part of the agreement.
That the alleged co-conspirators in Clementi’s downfall were of Asian parentage shouldn’t even factor into this discussion. Why does it, then? I confess that I had fallen for the stereotype — a positive one, but a stereotype nevertheless — that Asian students are almost uniformly conscientious, bright, decent and dutiful. Well, it’s time to bang another nail into the coffin of yet another defunct generalization.
The obvious moral here is that no group is exempt from committing deeds of cruelty and folly. This is no reflection on Asians, of course; it’s an indictment of our species — at least its eternally evil underside.
While we’re on the subject of generalizations, let’s shift to the other story: the sudden downfall of CNN anchor Rick Sanchez. In a spirited satellite radio interview with comedian/host Pete Dominick, Sanchez grumbled about being ridiculed relentlessly by Comedy Central’s alpha news satirist and all-around media darling, Jon Stewart.
Sanchez came armed with a reasonably valid beef: Stewart has a knack for zeroing in on his favorite personal targets and twisting the knife repeatedly… month after agonizing month. Yes, his victims often bring it on themselves, and Sanchez had given us an ample array of “Duh!” moments — but Stewart’s gibes have an element of sadism that alienates me after repeated viewings. The man is wickedly funny, but he doesn’t know when to stop.
Stewart’s defenders claim that he’s just a comedian, for gosh sakes. But we all know he’s a public figure whose worshipful audience turns to him for a seriously funny take on the day’s events and personalities. He’s at least as powerful an opinion-maker as Glenn Beck or Oprah Winfrey… certainly more influential than President Obama in that department.
The man isn’t naive: he has to know that his mockery is holy writ to an entire generation of viewers.
Back to the self-destruction of Rick Sanchez. The beleaguered CNN newsman started to complain that the nominally liberal Stewart was just as bigoted in his own way as the right-wingers… that he was the quintessential privileged Eastern white liberal yuppie who pats minorities on the head and passes them over for positions of consequence.
In their own words:
Dominick: How is he a bigot?
Sanchez: I think he looks at the world through his mom, who was a school teacher, and his dad, who was a physicist or something like that. Great, I’m so happy that he grew up in a suburban middle class New Jersey home with everything you could ever imagine.
Dominick: What group is he bigoted towards?
Sanchez: Everybody else who’s not like him. Look at his show, I mean, what does he surround himself with?
Hmm. Score one for bubbling class resentment. Sanchez is a white Hispanic from Cuba, no more a “person of color” than Desi Arnaz. But he perceives himself as a minority and undoubtedly grew up with that consciousness as his father took laboring jobs in Florida.
When interviewer Dominick reminded him that Stewart is Jewish (and therefore a minority himself), Sanchez gushed both exasperation and sarcasm:
Please, what, are you kidding? I’m telling you that everybody who runs CNN is a lot like Stewart, and a lot of people who run all the other networks are a lot like Stewart, and to imply that somehow they, the people in this country who are Jewish, are an oppressed minority? Yeah.
There’s our smoking gun. Sanchez violated two essential rules of professional survival: Never diss your company’s management in public, and try not to mouth off about Jews.
But Jews are prominent in the media, an objective witness might protest. That’s an observable, indisputable fact and nobody should have to part company with a job for observing it (though it’s bad manners to make a point of observing it). On the other hand, Jews don’t “control” the media and never have; that malicious anti-Semitic legend implies deliberate and devious manipulation. See the difference?
Did Sanchez say (or even imply) that Jews control the media? I don’t think so; he simply observed that 1) there are lots of Jews in the TV business, and 2) Jews aren’t exactly an underprivileged minority group in the U.S. True statements, both of them.
So blame Sanchez for being needlessly blunt… blame him for being sarcastic and resentful toward a famously successful minority… but I don’t detect a capital offense in his hotheaded utterances (other than his cavalier remark about his own employer).
What about Rick’s original accusation — that Jon Stewart is bigoted against people who aren’t like him? “Bigot” is too strong a word, but Sanchez made a cogent point about the undeniable snoot factor that I’ve observed too often in educated urbanites with a leftish bent.
Stewart’s “bigotry,” like that of his adoring demographic, seems to target anyone less intelligent, educated and sophisticated than himself. Stewart clearly included Rick Sanchez in that category, Sanchez took umbrage, and the rest is history. So, for better or worse, is Rick Sanchez.
Unlike good-natured jesting, public ridicule is a hard pill to swallow. It takes a toll. Even the most patient men have their limits. Tyler Clementi ended his life for fear of experiencing that ridicule. Rick Sanchez effectively ended his career by striking back against it.
Here’s another sad irony: apparently Jon Stewart had to endure anti-Semitic schoolyard taunts as he was growing up. People like him have a choice: they can perpetuate the ridicule by inflicting it just as mercilessly on others, or they can develop a special empathy for anyone on the receiving end.
We know how Jon Stewart responded. His choice probably made him a sharper satirist, but I’m afraid it might have made him a lesser man.